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-- Mark J. Estren

21st Century Consort

The gently inflected reading given "A Child's Christmas in Wales" by NPR personality Martin Goldsmith, in the 21st Century Consort's program on Saturday at McEvoy Auditorium, allowed the nostalgic atmosphere of Dylan Thomas's words to register with clarity and sly wit.

The music with that text was as expertly played as one might expect from this ensemble, though much of it had a tenuous connection at best to the memoir's mood. Three carols by Peter Warlock -- sung with a fresh-from-the-conservatory callowness by soprano Mary Bonhag -- brought to mind the kind of Christmas Thomas would have known, but sounded wan beside his vivid prose. In stark contrast, even in pianist Lisa Emenheiser's riveting reading, the ominously tolling chords and haunting, strummed piano strings of George Crumb's "A Little Suite for Christmas" conjured a far bleaker midwinter than Thomas's story did.

Crumb's "Federico's Little Songs for Children" and Paul Schoenfield's "Slovakian Children's Songs," programmed no doubt for the word "children" in their titles, were no more appropriate to Dylan Thomas than, say, Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder." Crumb's thorny score -- tackled with flair by Bonhag, harpist Susan Robinson and flutist Sara Stern -- evoked sultry summer nights in Spain. And Schoenfield's flute-and-piano piece (Emenheiser and Stern again terrific in difficult music) filtered Eastern European folk songs through Satie and Stravinsky. Both are intriguing works. But they're a long way from Christmas, or Wales.

-- Joe Banno

American Opera Theatre: 'Messiah'

American Opera Theatre's staging of Handel's "Messiah" at Georgetown University's striking new Gonda Theatre on Saturday was not the first time the work's been staged in America, as the company claims -- Millennial Arts Productions in New York mounted a theatrical version in 1999 -- but it was likely a Washington first. Not everything made cogent sense, but director Timothy Nelson's ambition to wrestle this oratorio into something viably dramatic was admirable.

In Part 1, on a stage littered with torn-out Bible pages -- and lit gorgeously by Kel Millionie -- an ensemble of supple-voiced, dramatically engaging soloists (radiant-voiced soprano Sherezade Panthaki a standout) was introduced as a set of recognizable contemporary types -- confused yuppie, evangelical proselytizer, crazy homeless guy spouting doomsday predictions, etc.

But as Parts 2 and 3 progressed, with their preponderance of contemplative text over actable narrative, the attempt to weave a story with these characters was replaced with the pacing, posing and semaphoric gesturing familiar from the last 30 years of postmodern theatre. It was an interesting notion to have the cast bludgeon and crucify a smug Advent-calendar angel later in the production. But that pesky, reverential text kept contradicting Nelson's impulses, and he didn't find the ironic tone that might've sold his grim, disaffected "Hallelujah" Chorus.

As a conductor, Nelson was far more convincing, drawing lithe and lovely phrasing from the 16-member GU Chamber Singers and ear-teasingly pungent work from a 10-piece period-instrument orchestra.

-- Joe Banno

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